Wednesday, December 2, 2009

For the Season of Giving and Gifts

A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck. Dial, $16.99, Ages 10+

Returning to the setting and characters of his award-winning novels, A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way from Chicago, young adult novelist Richard Peck grabs attention for his newest novel immediately with opening paragraphs about a house “haunted by a living being.” Grandma Dowdel, the eccentric star character from the above-mentioned companion novels, is “way too solid” (and cranky) “to be a ghost.”
Bur eleven-year-old Bob Barnhart and his family who have moved in next door to her so his dad can become the Methodist church’s new minister, begin to realize the last house in town and its owner are both real and larger-than-life. With 1958 era sensibilities, including a supposed ghost of a Kickapoo Indian princess, and assumptions about the winter holiday season that don’t include other religious belief systems, this historical novel nonetheless gives readers a chance to laugh and have their hearts warmed.
She’s “no church woman,” and she doesn’t “neighbor,” and Christmas is “just another day to her.” But Mrs. Dowdel’s gifts are many and large, and she doesn’t wait until Christmas to give them. But most important, the surprising gifts in this holiday tale extend beyond the pages, creating a remembrance of a time now past.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Traditional Japanese Tale

The Beckoning Cat by Koko Nishizuka, illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger. Holiday House, $16.95, Ages 5-8

Based on a Japanese folktale, this delightful retelling supplies readers with an understanding of an ancient good luck symbol and its origins. Japanese born author, Nixhizuka’s debut children’s book is a dream-like tale of a son whose father’s illness prevents him from selling fish to earn a living.
Yohei the son, feeds and cares for a drenched, mud-splattered cat. When Yohei cannot sell the fish, the cat, in apparent appreciation, beckons customers to Yohei’s humble home. They buy the fish he was unable to sell, and had to bring home with him when his father is suddenly taken ill.
Thanks to the cat, he’s able to sell all the fish before they spoil. The customers promise to return and Yohei is able to earn a living, and care for his father.
This tale of a son’s devotion, love and care for both his father and a stray cat is accompanied by muted watercolor gouache, ink and colored pencil illlustrations. Artist Litzinger’s flat, almost primitive, style accents the magical qualities of this folktale. Her occasional bright colors emphasize the importance of the character, lifting it from the earthier tones in the background. Her decisions to fade some of the colors adds depth in a sometimes opaque but effective scene layout, and increasing the brightness of the colors adds energy as the tale progresses to its fable-like ending.

Monday, September 7, 2009

One Way to Remember Birthdays . . . .

The Birthday Tree by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Barry Root. Candlewick, $16.99, Ages 7-9

Jack’s father was a sailor who left the sea with his wife, after losing three sons to the waves. To honor Jack’s birth, his parents plant an apple tree.
As Jack grows, so does the tree. His parents notice the apple tree seems to reflect Jack and his moods and his health. When Jack leaves home, his parents watch the apple tree to understand what’s happening with Jack.
When a meadowlark perches on the tree, they think he’s traveling over land, when it’s a gull, he’s sailing the sea. When the apple pies are sweet, Jack’s happy, but when lightening strikes the tree, the sailor father and his wife become concerned.
Newbery Medal award winner Fleischman often begins a story asking “what if . . . .” which is true for this lyrical mythic tale. Illustrator Root uses earth-toned watercolors in a careful mix of large and small images. Oval paintings on several pages are used to capture the shape of the seasonal tree, emphasizing its importance. With careful use of light and dark, the artist has crafted timeless paintings to accompany a powerful family story, with a twist of magic.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Normal Day

Normal day,
let me be aware of the treasure you are.
Let me learn from you,
love you,
bless you before you depart.
Let me not pass you by
in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow.
Let me hold you while I may, for it may not always be so.

by Mary Jean Iron

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Salute to Phillis Wheatley

Phillis’s Big Test by Catherine Clinton, illustrated by Sean Qualls. Houghton Mifflin, $16.00, Ages 6-9

Set during the infancy of the United States, Phillis Wheatley’s biography is another example of a woman who learned early the power of words to change her life as a slave from Africa. Her poetry was the first published by an African American.
But before her book was sold, she was required to prove she had actually written the poems by submitting to an examination by eighteen educated and powerful men from Massachusetts. This Boston slave girl’s experiences were shaped by the kindness of her owners, and the education they provided, as well as Phillis’s own eagerness to learn. Later, freed by these same owners, she wrote patriotic poems, and at his invitation, visited George Washington.
Author and historian Catherine Clinton once again demonstrates the importance of a well-told story to capture the interest of young readers. Her literary skill echoes that of her subject, and is accompanied by mixed media illustrations from artist Sean Qualls, featuring the blues and reds of the colonial era. An Epilogue concludes the book.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Linda Sue Park, Sunday workshop comments continued

Elements of structure include micro process (see immediately below) and macro process (see further below) which grows out of the micro process:
1) grammatical case
~ "I" or "he/she" (rarely "you")
2) point of view (POV)
~ first person: dangers -- difficult to write well, only one person holds the camera, must never step out of character's perspective, hard to transmit information the character takes for granted because it distances the reader from the action
~third person omniscient: all seeing/all aware, every character gets a camera, cameras all over the set held by unseen narrators
~third person limited: only one person holds the camera
~third person limited plus: one character's inner thoughts plus an outside narrator, that character holds the camera, and the narrator has one too (LSP uses it most/A Single Shard)
3) verb tense
~past tense: traditional in the English language (not all languages use tenses) -- a basic tenet of the reader-writer contract
~present tense: grammatically incorrect. Use with caution! (have a compelling reason for breaking the reader-writer contract) Best used for anecdotes, joke-telling, habitual repeated action
4) 'voice'
~authorial voice: this happens over time, after one has accumulated a body of work
authorial voice is different from character voice
~character voice: read aloud to work on authenticity, give character a physical voice different from your own voice, word choice is the writer's tool to make the character voice distinct and believable
~narrative voice: is the voice of the story itself. As you write, in your writing mind, give the narrator a voice.
(Ex: -humor is in the story, not in the narrator's voice. In another story ex: -the narrator's voice can be humorous. Ex: -narrator can be older (a few weeks, years, etc.) than the self the story is about (main character).
In first person, the narrator/character voice are the same.
In third person omniscient, the narrator & character aren't always the same.
The writer can't get a handle on the story until the writer can get the narrator's voice.
5) scenes: the building blocks of fiction
~something is happening, the camera is moving to follow the action or movement
~description and internal monologue or character thoughts are not scenes. (limit their use, they can stall the story) Interior thoughts are not a compelling storytelling device -- limit them to one paragraph only or the reader gets bored. Description and introspection -- the scene isn't moving, nothing is happening. Getting into someone's head is not true to life, only seeing what they do, hearing what they say are true to life.
~a story moves through scenes of progress and impediment toward the quest/goal
YA has more impediment
MG has more balance of progress with impediment

Good scenes should be both interior and exterior movement toward what they want (growth).
One sentence can encapsulate a scene's action. If you can't say it in one sentence, go back and rewrite. Scenes must be progress to goal or impediment.

Subplots are extensions of progress or impediments. Characters move through scenes of progress and impediment.

Climax - main character faces a choice/makes a decision/acts on decision (the highest stakes are the climax) all are written in a series of scenes.

EXERCISE: Write a scene from another character's POV

To begin a story one must have structure, which is the bones of the story:
1) Character/Setting
~To establish a character: character must do or say something to progress or impede. Dialog counts as action.
~Character cannot be divorced from setting
2) Quest
~What does character want? (interior shows emotional growth)(exterior shows change)
3) List of possible scenes
4) Possible resolution
~ Have an idea of what the ending might be (but let the story take you where it wants to go)
MG -- happy/hopeful ending
YA -- ending doesn't have to be happy or hopeful but can be

Common macro structures (not limited to these):
~formal poetics
~free verse (lyrical)
~mixed media (Avi)

When someone is critiquing my story, remind myself that the story is way more important than my feelings.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

From the conference/SCBWI-FL

My favorite speaker this time was Linda Sue Park. Perhaps this was in part because I picked her up from the airport and we had a chance to talk briefly about writing before Lisa Yee's flight came in. I wished I could have joined them for conversation over dinner, but I had a previous commitment.

Linda Sue's Saturday comments:
She began by quoting Joseph Campbell who believes there are two stories in the world:
Hero(heroine) goes on a journey
Stranger comes to town

With these two stories there are infinite possibilities of how to tell these stories. And for her this is where her stories begin.

Factors of writing:
1) Reading is training for writers -- everything I need to know about writing is between the pages of the best books. Total immersion in the language of story.
2) Discipline -- make a time commitment to the story. I have a story in my head and I have two pages to write.
3) Revise -- make the story as good as it can be

When someone critiques my story, respond with "OK."
This means, "I'm listening. I hear what you're saying. I'll think about it."

Then play with my story. Try it their way. Try it my way. What will emerge will likely be different from the original. Try writing that sentence 10 different ways.

If you're working with a picture book, cut 1200 words to 900, then cut 900 to 750, then cut to 300. If you've lost the story, you'll know where the correct number is.

Linda Sue's Sunday workshop comments:
Susan Cooper claims to be an instinctive writer. LS claims this as well. But she has worked to distill her writing to share with others.

For her, character cannot be divorced from setting.
Structure is the bones of the story
Story tells about a character who wants something and tries to get it.
Structure is the answer to the question: how will I tell the story?